The Vodacom Bulls produced an exceptional third quarter to hand the Cell C Sharks their first defeat of the Vodacom Super Rugby season, winning 23-19 at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
The Bulls came out for the second half six points behind but scored two tries to turn the game in their favour, before weathering a late onslaught again to ensure they ground out a handsome victory and blow the race for the South African conference wide open.
After losing so comprehensively in Durban in the opening round, this was sweet revenge for the Bulls, and proved that while many may have written them off this year, they certainly aren’t done in the competition just yet.
In a game laced with drama and wrapped in brute force, the home side scored when it mattered most to get the win and soaked up the pressure when it was needed.
On the floor, Deon Stegmann was a monster in the first hour, showing why he is so highly rated and while captain Victor Matfield may be older than the rest, he certainly has few peers worldwide.
Together with the old heads, that included the samurai bearded warrior Dewald Potgieter, the Bulls created enough space and momentum for the moment to be executed and when it mattered most, it came.
It wasn’t surprising that the try-scorer that changed the game – Jacques “Sheep” du Plessis – managed to finally barge his way through a defender he so readily seeks out every game, but for the 20-year old it was even sweeter that the defender whose scalp he chose was his namesake Bismarck, and those who know the Bok hooker know he doesn’t often fall off tackles like that.
But the barge came and suddenly Du Plessis was in space, running in for a perfect try to signify the Bulls' resurgence and the Sharks were scratching their heads once again as they struggled just after halftime for the umpteenth game.
The match changed in an instant, although it could be argued that the Bulls were better value than their deficit at the break suggests.
Still, in a match where Frans Steyn once again underlined his worth – both in the midfield and with his long-range boot – it wasn’t surprising the form side of 2014 were ahead at the break.
It said a lot of the Sharks that they didn’t even flinch when they lost their halfbacks Pat Lambie and Cobus Reinach in the first 15 minutes, and the experience of Tim Swiel doing so well under pressure will be beneficial for a long time to come for the coastal side.
HAMMER AND TONGS
The Sharks also know pretty well their scrum is just as good as always, especially when Dale Chadwick appeared on the field, and in Andre Esterhuizen they have another star waiting to be unleashed.
But while things were pretty even in the first stanza, the Bulls were struggling to finish off moves they adventurously created from all parts of the field and would not have been happy when they went behind early as Reinach swooped down the near touchline and combined with Sibusiso Sithole to create enough momentum for Willem Alberts to score.
Jacques-Louis Potgieter pulled the Bulls back with a penalty and a drop goal, but two late penalties – both by Frans Steyn and one from over 50 metres – ensured the lead was a healthy six points at the break.
It was in the second half when the Bulls stepped up a gear, and the momentary lapse on the Sharks’ part cost them dearly.
After Du Plessis had drawn them level with his 49th-minute try, it took only five more minutes before Bjorn Basson broke right and the recycled ball was easily looped to JJ Engelbrecht on the wing to score.
From there it became an arm wrestle as the Bulls and Sharks both went at it hammer and tongs, with the Bulls scrum the only part that looked particularly vulnerable and conceding a number of penalties.
And with each penalty within 50 metres, Steyn simply stepped up and reduced the deficit. Twice was enough to reduce it to one point and as the game ticked into its last seven minutes, either side could have won it.
The Sharks were the first to flinch, however, as they were caught in defence and then turned a ball over, conceding a penalty in the process.
Replacement flyhalf Handre Pollard stepped up and made no mistakes, taking a valuable minute out of the game and in the process securing the win for the Bulls.
The win wasn’t enough to lift the Bulls from their third position in the South African conference, where they sit on 14 points behind the Lions (16) and Sharks (19).
The Lions have played an extra game though, and the Sharks stay top of the overall log, with the Bulls moving into sixth position.
Vodacom Bulls - Tries: Jacques du Plessis, JJ Engelbrecht. Conversions: Jacques-Louis Potgieter. Penalties: Potgieter, Handre Pollard. Drop goal: Potgieter.
Cell C Sharks - Try: Willem Alberts. Conversion: Tim Swiel. Penalties: Frans Steyn (4).